Beads of prayer
Chris McDonnell CT December 20 2019
Prayer is never easy. Thomas Merton, whose 51st anniversary we marked on December 10th, wrote that “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer has become impossible and hearts have turned to stone”. There is a struggle implicit in those words, a struggle that each one of us experiences as we seek to pray. In an Advent journal entry for December 5th 1964, he writes of his early days in the hermitage. “In the hermitage, one must pray or go to seed. The pretence of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice. It has to be real. Yet, what can one do? Solitude puts you with your back to the wall, or your face to it, and this is good. So you pray to learn how to pray!”
It was certainly a struggle that Merton knew only too well. Isaac of Syria linked love and prayer in a way that points to personal circumstance when he wrote that “Love comes from prayer and prayer comes from remaining in seclusion” . For although many of us experience prayer in the company of others, be it in parish, school, family or in the monastic community, there is an essential core in prayer that identifies a personal relationship with God, and in that, we are alone. Mark tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel that “in the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” Of course this is not exclusive to our Christian commitment, for many faith traditions invite the experience of solitude, a time of stillness and an opportunity to be. Merton's friend, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote “Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by the future. When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love” . This Advent is here and now.
Sitting alone for an extended period of time, whether on an open hillside, by the shore of the ocean, or in a church or at a shrine, is not easy. Our attention naturally wanders, distractions come and go and we too often become caught up with lots of words and fine phrases in our attempt to be alone with the Alone. This quest for solitude and quiet is in fact a contradiction to the very nature of our society where noise and busyness abound and our purpose is to be found in our doing something. Advent is a meaningful pause.
It was to help with such times that these beads were made. They are not intended as traditional rosary beads, though they can be used for that purpose, for the group of ten beads give the count for a single decade, but rather they offer a focal point for fingers to handle in a repetitive way during a time of meditation. The loop, slipped over the second finger of the right hand, leaves the thumb and index finger available to go from bead to bead, back and forth, maybe to the background of music, or the repetition of a simple phrase or just in silence. A small group of beads that are easily contained in the palm of the hand, offering a presence and a reminder whether outdoors in the garden, during a beach walk or in a city street; or indoors in the quiet tranquillity of an empty church or before a candle lit icon picture at home or in the dark hour before dawn. Whatever the setting, the intention is the same; that the handling of the beads might bring us in to the still presence of God, and that finding us there, we might listen to him.
Maybe a line from a psalm that has some particular association for us can be repeated as our fingers move from bead to bead. We might say slowly the Our Father, handling a bead with each phrase, and allowing time before rushing on to the next phrase, for it is time that we must give if meditative prayer is to grow in us. It is this surely that the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing is moving us toward when he wrote “We must therefore pray in the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of our spirit- and not in many words but in a little word of one syllable”
Go well in the remaining few days of Advent this year as we prepare, once more, to welcome the Christ-Child.
Words are shaped smooth
round beads, handled
each day, strung stones,
passed between finger and thumb
till darkened wood, worn by touch, cross grained,
is reached and the return journey begins.